“There’s a lot of people making money from disinformation,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Because salacious content attracts so many eyeballs, it generates money for platforms and the purveyors of disinformation.”
Misinformation analysts acknowledged that Facebook had clamped down on such inauthentic activity over the last two years, but said it was still relatively simple to create viral online content for either political or financial gain.
With just weeks to go before the U.S. election, Facebook said it has pulled out all the stops to reduce the amount — and spread — of fake and slanted content on its platform. That includes clamping down on so-called clickbait operations, or efforts to drum up reams of page views in the hopes of generating online advertising.
Facebook declined to comment on the Spanish-language pages. As of Thursday, before the sites went down, the company was still showing get-out-the-vote messages alongside both accounts’ politicized content, based on POLITICO’s review.
Opposite messages, same backers
In social media posts titled “You can tell Trump is afraid of Kamala Harris!” and “Even Joe Biden knows he will lose the election,” the Facebook pages associated with the New York-based man portrayed themselves as independent online media outlets for Spanish-speaking voters. That community has seen a barrage of conspiracy theories and other misinformation, like all Americans, in the run-up to November’s election.
In almost daily posts that linked to websites also tied to Winston, these Facebook pages served up red meat to liberal and conservative voters but did not say they were connected to the same individual. Their Facebook-generated “Page Transparency” features, created by the social network to provide greater clarity on who controls pages, also failed to disclose the connection.
Alerta Política, with almost 500,000 Facebook followers, targeted left-leaning users with attacks against Trump and praise for Biden. In the days after last month’s presidential debate, at least two of the page’s posts ranked in the 20 most-shared posts about the candidates within Facebook’s Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S., based on POLITICO’s review of CrowdTangle data — even outpacing reports from traditional outlets like CNN en Español and Univision.
Its rightwing counterpart, Política Veraz, had fewer online followers, at just over 43,000. But its Facebook page received more than 500,000 social media interactions since July, in the form of people sharing its conservative content, as well as comments and likes on the material, according to CrowdTangle’s data. That’s roughly the same footprint on Facebook as the Boston Globe over the same period.
Despite taking opposite sides in the upcoming election, both Facebook pages shared ties with Winston, whose other ventures include a coffee bean outfit, gaming social network and digital media company, based on a review of corporate filings, online activity and social media posts. Online records for the sites — including a phone number on the Política Veraz Facebook page and on Winston’s own personal Facebook page — matched those of his other online activities.
Winston does not appear to have a notable history of political activism. He has not donated to federal political candidates, based on a review of campaign finance records, and New York’s online voter registry shows a man matching his description as a registered Democrat who has voted in all federal elections since 2008.
Alerta Política, its fellow liberal site LeftOverRights and the conservative site Política Veraz were some of the only websites hosted on the same server as Winston’s personal websites, according to multiple tools that track which servers host specific websites. That server is also home to the site for his coffee bean company and a gaming social network also linked to Winston, according to separate online records.
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